"Approach love and cooking with equal abandon," advises the Dalai Lama, but emergency room doctors beg to differ. Although spending time in the kitchen can be magic for the soul, it can be brutal for the body. Most of us know we are supposed to handle razor-sharp knives and searing hot pans with care — but we persist in misusing them, not to mention all of the other dangers awaiting us in the kitchen. Consider the following:
1. Playing with fire
FEMA reports that cooking equipment, most often a range or stovetop, is the leading cause of reported home fires and home fire injuries in the United States. The agency, which notes that the leading cause of fires in the kitchen is unattended cooking, offers some tips for avoiding being a statistic:
- Stay in the kitchen when you are frying, grilling or broiling food. If you leave the kitchen for even a short period of time, turn off the stove.
- If you are simmering, baking, roasting or boiling food, check it regularly, remain in the home while food is cooking, and use a timer to remind you that you're cooking.
- Keep anything that can catch fire — potholders, oven mitts, wooden utensils, paper or plastic bags, food packaging, towels or curtains — away from your stovetop.
- Keep the stovetop, burners and oven clean.
- Keep pets off cooking surfaces and nearby countertops to prevent them from knocking things onto the burner.
- Wear short, close-fitting or tightly rolled sleeves when cooking. Loose clothing can dangle onto stove burners and catch fire if it comes into contact with a gas flame or electric burner.
2. Contact burns from equipment
The oven is magic. No longer do we have to sear our food on an open fire like our ancestors did; we have a nifty box that keeps the heat contained and cooks our food to perfection. But all that heat combined with metal components and cookware leads to loads of burns. Quick tips (which are obvious, but good to keep in mind): Always use oven mitts, replace them when they’re old; don’t use a wet towel as an oven mitt; don’t reach your arm in to check baked goods, pull out the rack to test; don’t touch the stovetop; and stir simmering food with a wooden spoon, not a metal one, which will get hot.
3. Food burns
Some of the worst kitchen burns come from hot food, so avoid scalding yourself by following these rules:
Use back burners when possible, or turn pot and pan handles in towards the counter when on the stove so that they can’t be knocked into and over by a passerby.
- Use a potholder when removing tops from cooking food to prevent the dreaded steam burn.
Take caution with hot foods in the blender; they have a tendency to explode and splatter.
Keep liquid away from hot oil; it will cause the oil to splatter.
It may sound obvious, but always take extreme care with super hot food; it's dangerous. For example, burn doctors hate instant soup because so many children end up in the hospital with serious burns from the hot broth and noodles from tipped instant soup cups.
4. Spills lead to spills
When things are getting critical in the heat of preparing a meal, there’s the temptation to leave messes for cleaning up after the meal has been eaten. But spills on the floor should be tackled immediately, lest they cause you to take a spill. It may not be convenient, but prompt attention to messes, especially ones on the floor, is the best attack.
5. Watch your step
The cousin of slipping from spills is falling from trying to grab something on a high shelf. When going for something out of reach, use a sturdy step ladder; do not use the nearby wobbly stool, crate, box, office chair or any other surface that may lead to a loss of balance.
6. Clutter hurts
When it comes to pantries, cupboards and refrigerators: Don’t pack them too full. You need room to be able to rummage around, and anything too close to the front risks the chance of falling out onto the floor, potentially leading to broken glass and/or broken toes, not to mention wasted food and a big mess.
7. Know your knives
Of course, one of the great dangers in the kitchen are those blades of honed steel created to slice through produce and flesh: your kitchen knives. There are too many tips to list here; there are whole classes dedicated to knife safety. But with some basics in mind and a review of more comprehensive knife safety guidelines, you can lessen your risk of injuring yourself or ditching a digit. The National Food Service Management Institute has a good list, including these basic tips:
- Always use sharp knives.
- Do not hold food in your hand while you cut it.
- Always cut on the cutting board. (Use a non-slip one, or place a damp dishtowel beneath it to prevent it from slipping.)
- Always keep fingers on top of the blade in case it slips.
- Keep knife handles free of grease or other slippery substances.
- Keep knives away from the edge of the counter to lessen the chance of being knocked off.
- Never try to catch a falling knife!
- Wash knives immediately after use. Do not leave knives in a sink of soapy water where they cannot be seen. Keep the sharp edge of the knife away from you when washing.
8. Feel the burn: Hot peppers
Humans have a strange love for spicy food, and in fact, we’re the only animal to find pleasure in the pain. But preparing raw hot chili peppers can provide a distinctly unpleasant and altogether different kind pain than you had in mind, especially if you touch your pepper-juice-delivering fingers to your eyes, nose, or, you know, any other sensitive parts. Long-lasting harm probably won’t occur, but the burn can be painful while it’s happening. When cutting hot peppers, either avoid actual contact with them or wear gloves.
9. Death to the pathogens
The most insidious of all dangers, perhaps, are the germs lurking in your food. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year roughly one in six Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases. The top five culprits sending Americans to the hospital are salmonella, norovirus, Campylobacter spp., Toxoplasma gondii and E.coli – but much can be done in terms of proper food handling, cooking and storage to help prevent these pathogens from causing illness.
10. Beware the bagel!
Americans eat an estimated 3 billion bagels at home each year, resulting in some 2,000 trips to the emergency room thanks to bagel-related injuries. By the logic at Freakonomics.com, that makes bagel-cutting the “fifth most dangerous activity in the American kitchen.” Slicing a bagel is no task for the faint of heart; their circular shape and dense texture lead to more sliced fingers than potatoes, pumpkins and cheese.
The Wall Street Journal visits Zabar’s, New York City’s kosher food haven, to discuss bagel-related injuries and the various bagel-cutting contraptions available on the market in the video below.